Judge Patrick Rogers has seen far too much melodrama for his Y chromosome to handle.
Our review of Sunflower, published July 1st, 2008, is also available.
"A woman born for love. A man born to love her. A timeless moment in a world gone mad." Even the tag line is dripping with melodrama
Maybe it should be noted that I'm not exactly the prime viewer for a film like Sunflower. Romantic melodrama just is not my thing at all. Something about the paper-thin characters, the clichéd narrative structures and the operatic acting tendencies of the genre just have never spoken to me. I never just turn my nose up on romance films sight unseen, this is someone who has seen Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice close to twenty times and shed a few tears during Once. But this De Sica film is just painfully over the top and predictable, even for its genre roots. However, fans of melodrama will certainly seize upon this film ferociously because it takes all of the conventions of the genre to 11.
Facts of the Case
Set in Italy years after the end of World War II, strong willed Giovanna (Sophia Loren, Two Women) is tormented by her husband Antonio's (Marcello Mastroianni, La Dolce Vita long absence. More frustrating is the fact that the Italian authorities can't tell Giovanna for certain whether Antonio died on the battlefields of Russia or not, instead simply telling her for years that he is missing. Giovanna sets out to find answers, though what she finds is not what she expected.
Vittorio De Sica (Bicycle Thieves, Umberto D.) is considered one of the greatest Italian directors and a leading figure in the Italian neorealist movement of the '40s and '50s. This was a movement marked by a desire to explore the effects of World War II on Italian national identity and the mentality of poor and working class social groups. Stylistically, these films were marked by a desire to use the medium of film as a way to capture or recreate a sense of reality through the use of, in part; tracking shots, long takes, location shooting and non-professional actors to enhance authenticity. De Sica has given us some of the crowning achievements in this movement but because of his erratic financial stability, due to certain vices, he also accepted some less than admirable projects. Sunflower seems to be, in certain aspects, one of those paycheck projects.
De Sica wants to explore how the war ruptured the Italian spirit by forcing young men to die for an unjust cause and the madness of it all. The film wants to delve deep into this "lost generation" and the freefall of Italy's culture and growth because of it, and also how so many Italian men could have abandoned their national identity for a foreign one. These are deep national scars for De Sica to explore and yet he constantly trips over his own feet in every conceivable way. There isn't a moment of Sunflower that isn't predictable or hasn't been done before and in a far better capacity. Stylistically, De Sica is maddeningly unoriginal and over the top in choosing operatic crane shots, silly zooms and clichéd flashback transitions as his signifiers of emotions. But it comes off as the director trying so hard to tell the audience when they should be feeling an emotion instead of trying to build moments organically.
There's a silly fade-to-white flashback of Antonio's experiences on the Russian front showing Italian soldiers slugging through the snow. The scene itself is almost laughably inept. There's exactly zero passion behind the whole endeavor, as if De Sica completely checked out for these couple pages of script. But even more ludicrous is that this footage is then superimposed over a waving communist flag. It all comes off as De Sica slapping you in the face screaming "FEEL! FEEL! Politics, war and death are bad!" I had to reach for my copy of Paths of Glory just to wash that putrid taste of contrived sentimentality out of my mouth.
But before I come off as a true cynic and bastard for so violently attacking De Sica, it should be said that there are glimpses here and there of his genius buried deep within this generic script and his DOA stylistics. At times, it can be a truly beautiful film with De Sica's eye honing in on the countryside and its inhabitants to create a sense of Italian culture, society, and everyday life defined by refined naturalness. This is only heightened by Guiseppe Rotunno's (The Leopard, All That Jazz) sumptuous cinematography. The film can be gorgeously framed at times with the rustic browns, salty blues and sun-kissed yellows of the Italian coast clashing magnificently with the Russian winter and countryside in the viewer's mind.
On the acting side, Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni are both powerhouse performers and two of the most recognizable faces of Italian cinema. It is the chemistry they share onscreen that is the saving grace to this simplistic and predictable melodrama. Their relationship, in part, is narrated through a series of flashbacks that catalogue their whirlwind romance. After a summer fling on the coast of Italy, Mastroianni convincingly sells us the portrait of a man tormented by his inevitable deployment to the warfront while Loren bares her soul to the camera as the force that would stop this from happening even though she barely knows the man. The two elope under the guise of giving Antonio an extra 14 days to enjoy his honeymoon period, but underneath that guise of marriage the two performers naturalistically build a believable connection. It should be said that De Sica's neorealist style behind the camera—his tendency to show mundane, everyday activities through long takes and a semi-stationary camera—helps to build this connection. While both Loren and Mastroianni overact to a painfully operatic degree in their fair share of scenes, it's what comes with the territory of the genre and can't be laid solely at their feet. On the whole, these are two commanding actors trying their best with bland material.
Henry Mancini's score to the film is another point of contention for me. It's hard to argue Mancini's status as a prolific composer, the theme to The Pink Panther is instantly recognizable to people who have never seen the films or the cartoon and his score for Charade is just exquisitely done. In this instance though his score jumps around from being a perfectly structured subconscious element that synthesizes the emotions of the characters in a pitch perfect way to being so over the top and obvious that it almost swallows the film whole with its melodramatic tendency. It's very strange that it is a score that can be both brilliant and frustratingly generic within the span of a single scene. The theme to the film becomes the shining example of the score's brilliance and it's a piece that acts as a leitmotif for the relationship between Giovanna and Antonio's relationship and the inherent passion and tragedy within it. It's sad and yet beautiful at the same time, melancholic and hopeful all within the same beat.
This score was in fact nominated for an Oscar in 1971 and when the music is hitting all the right marks, I can certainly see why. But the roots of the melodramatic have seeped their way into the cracks and crevices of the score in too many parts. It also comes off as very stereotypical at times and mocking in the way that it tries to showcase Russian culture through the use of traditional instruments played by someone who seems to have only read about Russian music and how to play it. This is far from Mancini's best work so maybe we can chalk up the warm reception to some sort of Cult of Personality-type influence.
Ultimately, Sunflower is a blandly directed, narratively generic but gorgeous film that shows flashes of brilliance behind the camera before settling back into the mundane. While its operatic tendencies and melodramatic roots may speak to many viewers who relish the genre and its conventions, I cannot say the same thing for myself. Look elsewhere for De Sica's brilliance.
The 1080p video transfer on this Blu-ray is another source of maddening ups and downs. On the whole, the image is incredibly soft and washed out with a blandness that kills the soul. However, there are a few instances of clarity and vibrancy in color that may not be astounding but make the heart flutter just a bit. There is also more than a fair share of slight damage that's been ported over from the print into this transfer and while some may hate this, I found it to add a great filmic feel to the whole presentation. All in all, this is far from a great transfer but it is probably the best the film has ever looked when not projected on the big screen. The TrueHD mono track is similarly soft. The sound lacks any sort of vibrancy or characteristic, especially in the score. Just because an audiotrack is mono does not mean it has to be bland and boring.
The special features situation on this Blu-ray is depressingly bleak with just three theatrical trailers and a photo gallery. One trailer is for the film itself, while the other two are for Marriage Italian Style and Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, two other films in Kino Lorber's Sophie Loren Award Collection. The striking fact is that there's no Loren-heavy special features like a documentary or interviews with or about her. This is her collection, is it not?
An already erratic film gets an erratic Blu-ray release. Even De Sica, Loren, and melodrama fans should proceed with caution. Elements of this film are gorgeously photographed, directed and acted while others are not.
Sentenced to an eternity of dividing viewers.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Kino Lorber
• Photo gallery
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